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They dressed-up, partied and kept going on a diet of cocktails and cocaine. The hedonism of the Bright Young Things is legendary, says Philip Hoare. But behind the glamorous image lies a sobering story of sordid lives and sad, lonely deaths

'The Honourable Stephen Tennant arrived in an electric brougham wearing a football jersey and earrings." This clip from a Daily Express gossip column comes not from the height of the 1980s, but from one of the infamous parties thrown by the Bright Young Things 60 years earlier. Its subject was the youngest son of Lord and Lady Glenconner, described by Jacob Epstein as the most beautiful creature he had ever seen; an alien figure in wasp-waisted pin-stripe suit, lamé tie, vaselined eyelids and Marcell-waved hair (complete with a dusting of gold). The look itself was a gesture of rebellion: for Tennant's generation, the recent war was a hateful memory, dismissed by Ronald Firbank as "that great persecution". Indeed, when photographed for his 21st birthday by Cecil Beaton, Stephen wore a leather coat copied from his brother's wartime flying jacket (with the addition of a chinchilla fur collar); an ironic reference both to that memory, and to his then lover - the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

Together with figures such as Beaton, Brian Howard, Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper, Stephen Tennant led a hardcore of 1920s fantasists whose increasingly bizarre antics attracted the daily attention of diary columns - written by their own friends, such as Tom Driberg (later Labour minister, and a man of flagrantly homosexual appetites). It was an age of new media, of tabloids, telephones, telegrams, with a soundtrack by Noël Coward, gowns by Schiaparelli and Chanel, and cocaine by Limehouse dealers. Like jazz, the new recreational drug was an American import, popularised during the First World War when soldiers introduced it to chorus girls such as Billie Carleton. Indeed, Carleton's fatal overdose at the Savoy, on Armistice Night, 1918, could be claimed as the keynote for the decade to come; just as Evelyn Waugh's deeply satirical novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930, was the epitaph of those frantic, self-obsessed years. Now, with Stephen Fry's new film (which uses Waugh's original title Bright Young Things), the tragic consequences of that hedonistic era are revived.

Fry's film stays fairly faithful to Waugh's story: the progress of the feckless Adam Symes through that world of distorted values. Vile Bodies was described by its author as "a welter of sex and snobbery", set in a class-obsessed, deliquescent Britain in which the Prime Minister is reduced to a drugged philanderer, marquesses to gossip columnists, and the entire country to a kind of theme park for film sets and parties. It's an inverted Alice in Wonderland existence in which the young pronounce everything to be "bogus", and in which emotion is reduced to the level of an ironic "how sad-making". As one character observes, "It was too thrilling to see all that dull money her father had amassed, metamorphosed in this way into so much glitter and noise and so many bored young faces." Riven with excess, the book ends in apocalypse, as a bleak, sardonic audit of a lost generation.

Using the same characters from his first novel, Decline and Fall, and written at the time that his first marriage was falling apart and that he converted to Catholicism, Vile Bodies also reflected events in Waugh's own life. His wife, known as She-Evelyn (because of the shared name but also the androgynous couple's similarity to each other), had left Waugh for John Heygate, a BBC news editor ("Nina Blount" and "Ginger" respectively in the novel); while Waugh had fallen in love with Diana Guinness (later Diana Mosley). As Selina Hastings reveals in her biography of Waugh, his book was seen as a judgement on the age, even by its contemporaries.

To Richard Aldington, it was a record of "one of the meanest and most fraudulent decades staining the annals of history", while Rebecca West saw it as "a further stage in the contemporary literature of disillusionment". The book was an instant hit, selling 2,000 copies a week and reprinting 11 times within the year, and its success was at least partly due to the heightened public awareness of the phenomenon it so acerbically charted: the rise and fall of the Bright Young Things.

According to one original BYT, "The first of the freak parties" erupted on the scene in 1926, with an Edwardian theme. There followed a bewildering series of events, staged everywhere from Belgravia mansions to a moored barge off Charing Cross Pier. There were Baby parties, a Mozart party (which cost its host an astronomical £3,000) and surreal Treasure Hunt Parties. The events were staged with all the attention to detail of modern art interventions. Brian Howard ("Johnnie Hoop" in Waugh's novel) wrote invitations which imitated the futurist diktats of Wyndham Lewis's Blast, while at his Wiltshire home, Stephen Tennant persuaded the Sitwells and William Walton to dress as Watteau shepherds while they were filmed by a tall young footman in dark glasses. One party, recalled to me by a then aged Marquess of Bath when I was researching my biography of Tennant in the late 1980s, ended with the young aristocrat and friends dancing over the counters of Selfridges; another concluded with the participants literally setting the Thames on fire with petrol.

The summer of 1928 saw the peak of this frenetic, infantalist activity. "We hardly ever saw the light of day, except at dawn", wrote Nancy Mitford. "There was a costume ball every night: the White Party, the Circus Party, the Boat Party, etc... ". It was as if no one wanted to stand still long enough to look where they were going. The culmination came with the notorious Swimming Bath Party, thrown by Brian Howard and friends at St George's Public Baths. Inside, party-goers wore bathing suits "of the most dazzling kinds" and danced madly "to the strains of a negro orchestra ... The Hon Stephen Tennant" - ever the cynosure of the diarists - "wore a pink vest and long blue trousers". As the party hotted up, guests began to fling themselves in the water. By the early hours, such was the commotion that the police were called - only to be dragged into the changing rooms "in the hope of general disrobing".

It was all getting too much. Allanah Harper recalled her last party, given by Stephen's brother, David Tennant, which ended "in a free fight". Harper found herself "in the middle of a jealous fracas [which] resulted in my dress being practically torn off and tufts of my hair held up as trophies. After that experience I never went to parties of this kind again."

To Brenda Dean Paul, one of the pioneers, the Bright Young Things had by that time already withered in the media flashlight. If Stephen Tennant (caricatured as Miles Malpractice and brilliantly played by Michael Sheen in the new film), was the most outre peacock of the movement, then Dean Paul was its female epitome. Daughter of an impoverished baronet, Dean Paul was a good-time girl with pretensions to acting. She'd gone to the UFA studios in Berlin - but Weimar decadence introduced her to cocaine and heroin. Back in London, her social ubiquity and stunning looks made her an It Girl of her day - so famous that at a "Living Celebrity" party, Olivia Plunket Greene came dressed as her.

For years, Brenda never went to bed before four or five in the morning, and seemed to subsist on cocktails alone. But as prolonged drug use took its toll, her chic looks turned cadaverous. Her battles with addiction were fought in the same fierce glare of publicity that had chronicled her partying. Even as she descended into addiction, Brenda complained that "publicity killed the 'bright young people'". She blamed gate-crashing hangers-on whom, with a chilling sense of class distinction, she describes as having "wormed their way into the social life of the BYP ... feigning tremendous intimacy with anybody whose name was sufficiently high-sounding and whose weaknesses were sufficiently manifest, hence a state of what I call 'social blood-poisoning' or canker, which resulted in the disintegration and death of those pioneers of social freedom and modern manners."

It was literally disintegration and death for some. In Waugh's novel, and Fry's film, the disgraced diarist, Lord Balcairn, puts his head in a gas oven; Agatha Runcible ends up in an asylum (and in the book, dies, almost incidentally); and when Miles Malpractice's malpractices are discovered by the police, like Wilde before him, he is forced into exile. In real life, Miles's counterpart suffered a similar fate: arrested for importuning a soldier on Salisbury station, Stephen Tennant was committed to a mental hospital in Kent. For Brian Howard a post-BYT life of radical politics and sexual excess resulted in rejection, exile and ignominy.

These were the real casualties of that era. Fry's film, too, charts that carpe diem descent, from beautifully choreographed party scenes to collective ruination. Almost incredibly, Stephen Tennant lived into his 80s as an aesthetic recluse in his Wiltshire manor, where I met him, just before his death in 1987. Brenda Dean Paul too survived, just, into the post-war world, still stalking the Kings Road, her beauty apparently mummified by heroin. In 1952, she finally succumbed to an overdose, just as Billie Carleton had done a generation earlier. But by then, the death of a minor aristocrat's daughter barely merited a footnote in the back pages.

'Bright Young Things' is out on 3 October. Philip Hoare is the author of 'Noël Coward: A Biography' (University of Chicago Press)

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